Saturday, 24 December 2011

Ramblings: Eye Eye

My biggest fear has always been going blind. The thought terrifies me. I can’t imagine not being able to read, watch films or see live theatre. It’s a horrifying thought. I started to get migraines aged 8 and in my teens had my first bout of visual disturbance. I was in a Biology lesson and everything went patchy and disordered; Bunsen burners and people’s faces mixing wildly and everything becoming slightly surreal. Twenty minutes later it was gone and I could see again and had just the throbbing headache and projectile vomiting to contend with. This became a common occurrence for me, with visual disturbances brief and warning of impending migraines necessitating a few hours in a darkened room.

About seven years ago I was leaving work and stopped to speak to a colleague when I noticed there was a little eyelash flapping in the corner of my eye. Frantic blinking and flicking at my eye resulted in nothing and the flicker persisted. Within a few hours I was laying on the sofa, holding my head, as a pain like a juggernaut tore through my left eye and the side of my head. I slept for a while, took loads of pills and it persisted. I had to walk around holding my eye, the pain was so intense. It lasted for three days, by which time I was desperate. The doctor, understandably, thought it was a migraine and it wasn’t till I woke up blind in one eye the next morning that I realised that maybe it wasn’t just a migraine.

The emergency doctor was dismissive, leaning his sweaty torso over the desk as he peered into my eye and shone lights.

“There’s nothing I can see wrong. I suggest seeing an optician”

“Sorry to be pushy, but I’m blind in one eye. Surely that’s a bad sign?”

I stumbled one eyed to the optician and managed to get seen. I was seen by three different opticians who all muttered a lot, pronounced me blind in one eye (but still tried to flog me a new set of glasses as my 'prescription had changed') and sent me off to the emergency eye clinic. The emergency eye doctor was a bit surly and it was only when he started being nice to me that I realised maybe something was really badly wrong. The phrase “...if there was some quite bad news would you want to know it?” alerted me further. Of course I wanted to know.

Apparently I had a swollen optic nerve, was unlikely to get 100% of my vision back and there was a 50/50 chance that I had multiple sclerosis. Queue a lengthy (three month) wait for a scan, hours spent in clinics, a hideously claustrophobic MRI scan, a test involving a wire being put in my eye and electrical currents put through it and a lot of blood tests. There was a lot of waiting around. Naturally I was worried. In my head it was only a few weeks before I’d be bed bound. I’m nothing if not fanciful.

I decided to research the matter. I checked out reputable internet sites, talked to friends who were health professionals and knew about neurology and tried to be patient waiting for my eyesight to come back and for my scan to check for MS lesions. Unexpectedly, after the initial shock and worry I began to cope. I managed to take in and listen to sensible advice and relaxed into the whole business with a peculiar fatalism. An opthamology registrar gave me a pep talk which helped. Reminding me that MS wasn't a guareteed route to severe disability. I’d already had an MRI scan three years before following a period when I was dragging my left leg and the neurologist wanted to exclude MS. That one was normal. The blood tests were normal. I actually stopped worrying about the thought of possible MS and concentrated on the issue of managing with one eye.

Unsurprisingly I took to the sick role fairly well. I mentioned my problem at any given opportunity, referring to it at least 100 times a day. My poor partner was sick of hearing about One Eyed jack and his traumas. I went back to work and squinted a lot, managing fine. I watched films, read books and saw sights through one eye. The only thing I hated was the interminable waiting in eye clinic. Each appointment would take a minimum of an hour and once they’d put drops in my eyes to dilate them I was stuffed, no television or books whilst I waited, just the illicit joy of eavesdropping.

I always insisted on going to appointments alone, being independent is an innate trait in me. I was caught out the first time as I staggered out with blurred vision and couldn’t count out my change for the bus or use my mobile phone to call anyone to save me. I had to ask an old lady for help in counting my bus fare. I think it was an old lady, anyway. From then on I’d go armed with the right change in a separate pocket and lurch wildly across the busy main road to the bus stop.

I was still half blind a month later and I insisted on going on holiday. My GP was dubious about me flying but on checking with eye clinic it was allowed and we jetted off to the classy bit of Tenerife. I’d read that it was classy and the bit of it I saw through one eye looked fine. It was quite Spanish and there were no cheap Irish bars or Bingo places. We went in February and it was warm and sunny, a respite after a long winter in England. We had the usual misadventures: getting lost a lot, having diarrhoea in remote locations miles from any toilets and ending up in a very odd nightclub doing improvised Salsa. All the things which make holidays fun.

We walked a lot (whilst I kept up a monologue about how hard it is to be blind). We did go to a stunning zoo which had an amazing penguin exhibit where you entered a giant freezer the size of a sports hall and travelled round on a conveyor belt looking at penguins doing funny penguin type things on mini glaciers. Naturally I only saw it through one eye. Did I mention I only had one eye?

On returning home my sight very quickly came back ending my month of one eyed moaning. I made a miraculous recovery, losing only 2% of my total vision. The MRI was clear too. There were no signs of MS, even though the other scans had shown I had some loss of the outer sheath on the nerves in my eye. My diagnosis was downgraded to possible MS or a viral illness of the eye. There’s no point investigating further yet as there’s nothing they would do yet in terms of treatment. It just means that every time I stumble or twitch I end up back in the scanner (4 scans so far). I once started to panic badly in the scanner, being mildly claustrophobic and decided to think of things to distract myself. Visualising kittens and Bambi didn’t cut the mustard so I decided to think about dirty sex with the man who played the doctor on “Lost”. This set me off panicking further as I suddenly wondered if thinking about sex had lit up an area in my brain on the scan and made them think I was a right pervert. It was back to Bambi.

There’s always a positive thing about any bad experience and to be truthful this was quite a scary time. Sometimes the positive things are very tiny and pale laughably in comparison to the crisis. In this case I learnt three things: 1) its pretty crap being on the other side of health care 2) I do go on a lot when I’m ill 3) I actually do have some resilience deep down. Hopefully these lessons will stand me in good stead but hopefully they won’t be needed for some time yet.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Ramblings: The Divine Miss Dors

Anyone remember Diana Dors? She was the plump middle aged lady with peroxide blonde hair who played the fairy godmother in the Adam and the Ants video for “Prince Charming”. She was the blowsy lady spilling out of a too tight dress on Celebrity Squares and Blankety Blank in the 1980s. She was scandalous tabloid fodder for her hosting of wild sex parties and her troubled marriages, way before phones that could be hacked were invented.

There’s a lot more to Diana. She was actually a very talented young actress, an accomplished singer and cabaret artiste and was considered a great wit and beauty in her day. She was the youngest girl ever to have attended the London Academy of Music and Drama and the youngest person registered as the owner of a Rolls Royce. She couldn’t drive it, it was all a publicity stunt.

She was marketed as a very British answer to Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfied. There’s not much hope of glamour when you’re born in Swindon and called Diana Fluck but she managed to attain celebrity and notoriety. She said of her name: “They asked me to change my name. I suppose they were afraid that if my real name Diana Fluck was in lights and one of the lights blew...”

She was often clad in gold lame dresses which she burst out of and teetered around in preposterous heels, often seen draped over leopard skins. Being typically British she failed at maintaining the illusion and was often too frank, talking openly about her private life, causing her to lose a Hollywood film contract for immoral behaviour. When asked where she’d bought a leopard skin she was sprawled out on she informed the journalist that she’d picked it up cheap, second hand.

When her first marriage failed and she was held at gunpoint and forced to sign over her assets, she embarked on a cabaret tour and recorded a swing album called “Swingin’ Dors” to bring in some cash. It’s a bloody good album too. You can still buy it.

Diana’s acting talents were never in doubt and she achieved recognition for her 1956 film “Yield to the Night” in which she did something actresses didn’t do at the time. She played a murderess waiting to be hanged and appeared on screen with dark roots and no make-up and proved that unlike some of her American contemporaries she could actually act. Interestingly, the film was loosely based on Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in England, who was a friend of Diana.

There’s loads of interesting stuff about Diana Dors: she left behind a coded message stating where her hidden millions were, leaving an unsolved mystery as the money was never found. She once had a fling with Bob Monkhouse. She wrote tacky paperbacks about her life including the salacious “Behind Closed Dors”. She was a shrewd business woman who marketed herself and turned her image into a product but at times was terrible with money and went bankrupt in the early 1960s owing more than £40,000. The Archbishop of Canterbury once called her a “brazen hussy”, an accolade I’d be proud of. You’ve got to admire the woman. She certainly packed a lot into 52 years before her death from ovarian cancer.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Poems: Pessimism for Beginners

I love this poem. Low expectations make the the little things that happen, however few and far between, so much more enchanting. Two fingers to the cult of positive thinking. Positive thinking makes for banal people. I much prefer this approach.

Pessimism for Beginners

by Sophie Hannah

When you’re waiting for someone to e-mail,
When you’re waiting for someone to call –
Young or old, gay or straight, male or female –
Don’t assume that they’re busy, that’s all.
Don’t conclude that their letter went missing
Or they must be away for a while;
Think instead that they’re cursing and hissing –
They’ve decided you’re venal and vile,
That your eyes should be pecked by an eagle.
Oh, to bash in your head with a stone!
But since this is unfairly illegal
They’ve no choice but to leave you alone.
Be they friend, parent, sibling or lover
Or your most stalwart colleague at work,
Don’t pursue them. You’ll only discover
That your once-irresistible quirk
Is no longer appealing. Far from it.
Everything that you are and you do
Makes them spatter their basin with vomit.
They loathe Hitler and Herpes and you.
Once you take this on board, life gets better.
You give no-one your hopes to destroy.
The most cursory phone call or letter
Makes you pickle your heart in pure joy.
It’s so different from what you expected!
They do not want to gouge out your eyes!
You feel neither abused nor rejected –
What a stunning and perfect surprise.
This approach I’m endorsing will net you
A small portion of boundless delight.
Keep believing the world’s out to get you.
Now and then you might not be proved right.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Reviews: December 2011

December can be a bleak month and for me, it’s my least favourite time of the year. I’ve written before about my pathological hatred of all things festive and I also really don’t like the short days (see “The C Word”). Going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark is not joyous. I’m always glad when the 21st has passed and the days start drawing out, too slowly for me.

I always feel like hibernating in December and don’t venture out much. I have an overwhelming urge to sleep and eat stodgy food. I avoid the city centre, it’s packed with amateur shoppers clogging up the roads and streets and the enforced jollity, designed to make you spend money, grates on my nerves. It generally takes me 30 minutes longer each day to get home from work due to clogged up roads which annoys me.

Eating out isn’t always too good either and bars are a definite no for me. One hearing of “Last Christmas” by Wham or any of the numerous cheesy pop songs about Yuletide and I start to feel a little psychotic or become like the Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” on entering a Jacuzzi. Added to that, most places are full of drunken works’ parties and staffed by temporary teenage waitresses and the food is usually churned out with an eye for making as much cash as possible and quality goes out of the window.

Lots of friends are unavailable throughout December as they endure festive parties and family events and I hope for their sake, that they can get drunk enough to think they’re fun. Theatres are full of horrifically bad pantomimes starring has-been soap stars and people from long failed sitcoms and little else. Consequently, December is my most reclusive month so this month I’m mostly reviewing books and T.V.


Anne Tyler “The Amateur Marriage”

This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for several years. I picked it up and was instantly engrossed and wished I’d discovered it before. It’s the story of Pauline and Michael, a mismatched couple who meet in the 1940s and attempt to survive a marriage doomed for failure. Anne Tyler writes evocatively and portrays drama and mood through describing the mundane details of daily life. She slips in plot turns and twists subtly amongst the domesticity as she plots their life through to the 1990s. Pauline is a feisty fire brand of a woman, whilst Michael is staid and measured and the character portrayal is deft and sympathetic. I’d definitely recommend this book.

Jeffrey Eugenides “The Marriage Plot”

I love his work. I adored “The Virgin Suicides” with its nihilistic darkness and “Middlesex” was outstanding. This new novel took a while to draw me in but once it did I wasn’t disappointed. The story is a romantic comedy with an intellectual twist. The book follows the lives of three university students in the 1980s and examines whether love and romance are still pertinent in the age of pre-nuptial agreements, feminism and quickie divorces. It’s definitely comedy looked at through a glass darkly and is a brilliant book.

Harriet Lane “Alys, Always”

This novel is a sinister tale of social climbing, Machiavellian manoeuvres and exclusion. I was lucky enough to get a free copy from Waterstones to review. The book is, sadly, not published till February but it’s definitely one to look out for. I devoured the novel in a day. The characterisation is succinct and the tone and style of the book is sparse and chilling. This is the author’s debut novel and it’s a corker of a book. Good psychological thrillers which are well written are few and far between but this book is in a class of its own.


American Horror Story

I have a new addiction. I’ve wolfed down 10 episodes of this drama in less than a week. It ticked so many boxes for me. Dylan McDermott plays one of the main character and is obliged to walk round semi-naked an awful lot. Surely I don’t need to go on? That’s enough to make me watch.

It’s the story of a couple experiencing marital problems who move to L.A. only to find they’ve moved into a murder house which is beyond sinister. It reminds me of “The Shining” crossed with “Rosemary’s Baby” crossed with “Halloween”. It’s terrifying to watch and is very cleverly written. The house itself is a stunning place with art deco and arts and crafts features and is almost a character in itself. Jessica Lang stars as the creepy neighbour and her performance is impeccable, augmented by her creepy appearance, due (I think) to a lot of misguided surgical adjustment.

A hot man walks around semi naked, there’s a scary sub-plot about a gimp mask and it’s hideously scary. What more can you ask for?


My Week With Marilyn

I wasn’t at all tempted by the premise of this film. I thought that on paper it sounded really cheesy to have an actress mimicking Monroe. I imagined it’d be a dull film that was a bit tacky and couldn’t see the point of it. I was totally wrong. It was amazing, well written and paced. Michelle Williams gives a fantastic performance as Marilyn, evoking vulnerability mixed with a fragile egotism and a manipulative nature. The ensemble cast is brilliant. The film reminded me of the best qualities about British cinema and why I love it. Definitely, definitely see this film.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Ramblings: I (Don't) Want to Ride My Bicycle

I think I may have mentioned before, but one of my oddities is that I can’t ride a bike. If I tell people this they look at me gone out like I’ve just said I’m a hermaphrodite or I can’t write my own name. It’s considered, by most people, to be decidedly odd. I personally think that riding a bike is even odder. In fact, I’d go so far as to say I think its witchcraft.

I’ve always been a bit clumsy. I trip over a lot, am prone to bumping into things and am generally uncoordinated. I have mismatched eyes. Not like David Bowie, a green and a brown one, but I have one very long sighted one and one almost normal eye. The first time an optician noted this when I went for an eye test aged 12, he asked me if I was especially clumsy and accident prone. My mother nodded eagerly, finally latching onto to a diagnosis to explain my bizarre mishaps. Recently an optician asked me if I wore my glasses to drive. When I told her I didn’t drive, I’m sure it wasn’t just my imagination that made me see a look of relief wash over her.

I also have terrible balance. I’m rubbish at standing on one leg (I practice often), could never master stilt walking or roller skating as a child and the very thought of ice skating or skiing gives me an icy chill and a vision of plaster of Paris and traction. I get terrible travel sickness and have been known to run out of films with wobbly camcorder type shots, green faced. If I try to send text messages in a moving car I start to feel dizzy and throw up. I have to look away when a fast moving train goes by or I start to spin and I never liked roundabouts or fairground rides that spin round. I once spent a whole evening in bed with a bucket beside me after an ill advised go on the Waltzers aged 7.

These are my excuses for not mastering the art of staying upright on a bicycle. I had the usual sit in and push along cars as a toddler, progressed to the tricycle then onto the little bike with stabilisers. Then the problems began. My father developed a permanent frown and a mouth full of tightly gritted teeth as we repeatedly tried to get me to stay aloft a bike without 4 wheels. He’d push me along, let go and I’d fall off. This went on ad-nauseum, usually until I trooped off home in a strop, abandoning the bicycle with a wobbly bottom lip and a lot of bruises.

I’m not one for perseverance. “I’ve tried it once and didn’t like it” or “If at first you don’t succeed then give the bastard thing up as a bad job and avoid ever trying again” could well be ideal mottos for me. The shiny bicycle which my dad had bought second hand and lovingly restored stayed in the shed until we sold it and I spent the money on books. You know where you are with books (just don’t ask me to balance one on my head).

To be honest, I don’t feel the need to justify my inability to balance on a bike. I look at people going past on them and am startled by what a weird thing it is to do. Surely it’s some kind of sorcery? These people must have magic powers. Balancing on two wheels is nonsensical.

I knew I was on to a loser when attempting to learn to drive my instructor said to me on my first lesson: “It’s much like riding a bike” followed not long after by “You can’t ride a bike? What! How strange”

I’m happy to walk, thanks.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Ramblings: Smile Please

I keep passing a sign on my way to work outside a local dentist advertising “Snap-on-smiles”. The picture shows a hideous device like those comedy false teeth you got in Christmas Crackers in the 1970s. It’s a fake set of teeth that you simply snap on over your existing rotten yellowing teeth to con people into thinking you’re a Hollywood film star. I imagine they’re rather expensive too.

I find this whole white teeth obsession puzzling. My teeth are a healthy off white and yellow combination with a smattering of iron grey fillings which are revealed if I laugh loudly. I often laugh loudly. I’m actually quite proud of them. Having rotten crooked teeth marks you out as being British. We’re famous for them throughout the world. We have a variety of patterns and shapes and the colour spectrum is represented beautifully from battleship grey to canary yellow through to eau de Nil.

I watched an old film last night from 1961 of “The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone” by Tennessee Williams. The film was a weak adaptation in spite of Vivien Leigh doing miserable and deranged as only she could, but what distracted me most during the film was Warren Beatty’s teeth. Warren Beatty played an Italian gigolo with a bottle tan and a dazzling set of huge white teeth. They were most disconcerting and constantly took my mind off the plot and dialogue. It became a dental fiesta. The lights were dazzling, reflecting off his huge mouth full of frightening dentition.

I wonder why we’ve become a nation now obsessed with having sparkling white, perfectly straight teeth when in reality they look pretty scary. There’s nothing quite as disconcerting as an ordinary British person who has teeth which if caught in the right ray of light could remove your cataracts. Perfection doesn’t look good. Take the example of women who plaster on foundation make up with a trowel. A pure matte, evenly coloured face looks odd and unattractive. They look much better with a hint of the natural, a bit of variety of tone.

I’ve had a long running issue with my teeth. The dentist says it’s genetic and I firmly hold with that. I clean, floss, gargle and have regular check-ups. In spite of that I have fillings, veneers and crowns aplenty. When I gave up smoking once for nine months, I chewed so much sugar free gum that half my fillings crumbled away with the repetitive action and I ended up spending more money on dentistry than I ever saved through not buying cigarettes. I started young. I had fillings in my milk teeth. I was a frequent visitor at the local NHS dental clinic and had to have various teeth yanked out due to an overcrowded mouth. I became a bit dental phobic and stopped going at all once I grew to adulthood.

I was scuppered one day by an abscess and had to return in my mid twenties for a clutch of fillings. I managed to temporarily overcome my fear until a year later a wisdom tooth rotted. The dentist decided to pull it and I’ll never forget his face when the tooth made a decidedly nasty crunching sound and he snapped it in two.

“I’m afraid this may be considerably more complicated than we first thought.” he said, grinning and placing a box of large metal corkscrew type implements on my chest. I left an hour later, dazed and covered in blood with a bruise on my chest where he’d rested his knee as he played tug of war with my tooth fragments. I remember staggering out and trying to light a cigarette and almost falling into the road in a dramatic faint. I didn’t go back for a few years.

Let’s face it, dentists are invariably wealthy. They’re sneaky blighters, always looking to make as much money as possible. Have you ever met a poor dentist? I don’t trust them at all. My current dentist advertises dental whitening parties especially for Christmas. You and your friends and colleagues can all have a lovely party where you spend huge amounts of money to get glow-white teeth. Sounds fun, no? Not my kind of party and not my idea of an investment.

Ultimately, I don’t want to blind people with an unnatural smile which eclipses all my other facial features. I don’t want to look like an Osmond circa 1978 or a crazed Mormon door stepper. I certainly don’t want to look like Mr Ed the talking horse or a comedy vicar from an old situation comedy. I’m happy with my grotty old teeth. They chew food and serve me well. Receding gums, crooked smiles and stains are good enough for our aristocracy so they’re good enough for me too. Leave your teeth alone, you’re fine as you are.

I’ll leave you with the words of Spike Milligan:


 English Teeth, English Teeth!

 Shining in the sun

 A part of British heritage

 Aye, each and every one.

 English Teeth, Happy Teeth!

 Always having fun

 Champing down on bits of fish

 And sausages half done.

 English Teeth, HEROES' Teeth!

 Here them click! and clack!

 Let's sing a song of praise to them -

 Three Cheers for the Brown Grey and Black.